See Something, Say Something: A Smart Practice for Homeland Security

Speaking last year at the grand opening of Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab in Colorado, Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff referred to citizen involvement as the “cornerstone of our security”. According to Chertoff, “some of the most significant [terrorist] plots that have been disrupted by law enforcement have been a result of a tip by private citizens, somebody who saw something and spoke up”. These statements closely mirrored those shared by President Bush more than a decade earlier in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when he urged all Americans to get personally involved in our Nation’s homeland security efforts by, among other things, educating themselves relating to the terrorist threat and reporting suspicious activity.

Recognizing that public involvement in alerting authorities to suspicious and potentially harmful activity is crucial to our national homeland security efforts, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has initiated several security awareness campaigns over the last decade. The largest of these campaigns is “If You See Something, Say Something”, which was instituted nation-wide by DHS in July 2010. The initiative represents a simple program designed to increase public awareness of indicators of terrorism and urge members of the general public to immediately report suspicious activity to the proper authorities.

While relatively new to DHS, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has been using the “If You See Something, Say Something” program since 2002. A decade later, it is virtually impossible to miss the campaign’s signs when frequenting public area or moving around Manhattan using any of the City’s many modes of public transportation. As such, the MTA program generates thousands of tips each year and is believed by most to be a great success.

Following MTA’s lead, DHS has been working hard to expand the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign’s national focus over the past 3 years by developing partnerships at the local, state, and national level. According to DHS, the program now has 215 public, private, and non-profit partners, including some 20 states, 15 different universities, and at least 5 sports leagues. The “If You See Something, Say Something” logo and message was also recently broadcast at both the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby. These efforts have led to relatively wide penetration of the American public. In fact, in a recent survey, funded by DHS and conducted by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START), indicated that 44% of American’s surveyed reported having some level of awareness relating to the “If You See Something- Say Something” campaign. This is commendable and is a good indication that the program is working and should be continued, even expanded.

Additionally, since 9/11, most members of the public are not only more aware of their surroundings, which increases their potential to notice suspicious activity, they almost always come readily equipped with a personal communication and recording device. With today’s smart-phones capable of taking high-resolution photographs, making digital videos, and immediately connecting the citizen to the authorities, worldwide social networks, and endless volumes of information, the average citizen has virtually the same capabilities as paid security or law enforcement professionals. The “If You See Something, Say Something” program takes full advantage of these widely available personal technologies, further increasing the program’s value without increasing program costs. Further, many communities, like the City of Houston, have established supplemental programs, like IWatch, which allow citizens to anonymously communicate tips relating to suspicious activity using their mobile phones via voice, text, or e-mail. These added features increase the flexibility of communication and further enhance program effectiveness.

In summary, as the cornerstone of security, properly educated, activated, and equipped citizens are critical to our Nation’s homeland security efforts. Practical security awareness campaigns, such as DHS’s national “If You See Something, Say Something” program, are designed to increase public awareness of indicators of terrorism and urge members of the public to immediately report suspicious activity to the authorities. These campaigns have proven to be effective, having increased the level of awareness for millions of Americans. Thousands of tips are now communicated by the general public each year and followed up by local, state, and federal authorities as a result of these programs. The “If You See Something, Say Something” initiative is simplistic, cost effective, flexible, and multifaceted in its application and represents a true “smart practice,” worthy of continuation and expansion by DHS.